The Namesake — Book Review
You Can’t Outrun Your Heritage
by Adithya Solai
Table of Contents
- My One-Line Summary
- Key Takeaways
- My Review
- Final Verdict
My One-Line Summary
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a coming-of-age drama about South Asian immigrant children reconciling their heritage with an American upbringing.
You Can’t Outrun Your Heritage
There is a gravity that silently keeps immigrants grounded to their heritage and culture. Many immigrant children, including myself, try to escape this gravitational pull in order to fit in with American culture. Sometimes, the immigrant children that rebel the hardest get the most sobering wakeup call to go closer to their roots. Their culture catches up with them.
Cultural wakeup calls can occur when some key interaction makes you realize that there will always be a degree of separation with the Americans that you tried so hard to assimilate with. This is the wakeup call that the characters in The Namesake receive. This conflict is explored in detail in My Review below.
Others, like me, may simply become disillusioned with American culture, and start appreciating aspects of their culture that they disliked before.
Cultural wakeup calls can lead to an identity crisis. The immigrant child must decide whether to stick closer to their heritage or the American world that adopted them. The most impressive immigrant children are those who can somehow balance both cultures.
Your Heritage Doesn’t Have All The Answers
It’s easy to get carried away and romanticize your orthodox immigrant culture. It’s easy to start labeling your heritage as “proper” and “old-fashioned”, and start disliking American culture for a lack of values and tradition.
However, the world is quickly globalizing and westernizing. Even young people brought up in a metropolitan area in India are now some hybrid of old-fashioned South Asian values and modern Western values.
Embodying the best aspects of both South Asian and American culture is likely the ideal approach to the modern world. This also serves as a good framework for deciding which people from your cultures to surround yourself with. The main character of The Namesake, Gogol, learns this tragic lesson the hard way. This is covered in My Review below.
As in Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri uses simple prose that makes this book an engaging page-turner.
I appreciated Lahiri’s initial focus on Gogol’s mother and father in her 3rd-person narration of the book before settling her focus on Gogol for the remainder of the book. I enjoyed Ashima’s story arc at the very beginning that describes her journey from living comfortably with her extended family in India to living in American as the wife of a man she doesn’t know. I also came to appreciate the exposition story of Ashoke’s train crash incident because of the layers it adds to Gogol’s rebellion against his Namesake in the future.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the stories of how Ashima and Ashoke tackled the challenges of assimilating to American life together while Gogol was still young and not yet ready to be the main protagonist of the story. Just like Gogol, I was also too young to remember and understand a lot of my parents’ initial struggles in America. These snippets give me a glimpse into the struggles that my parents likely endured when assimilating to American culture while still trying to hold on to their roots.
I grew to love the sudden shifts to Moushumi’s perspective in the final third of novel. It gave some much-needed female perspective on what it is like to grow up in America as the daughter of South Asian immigrants.
We learn that Moushumi’s life is defined by rebellions. One of her rebellions that I have witnessed in real life is the shedding of her bookish, nerdy childhood cocoon to grow into a woman free of inhibitions that freely explores many lovers. She also rebels against her heritage by secretly completing an improper, unreliable major in French while also studying an acceptable major like Chemistry. (“Proper” majors in South Asian culture are the respectable, money-making majors like Medicine, Law, Engineering, and Business.) She takes it a step further by moving to Paris against her parents’ wishes of becoming a chemist. She rebels against her heritage even further by insisting on marrying a White man she meets in Paris.
The bad karma of her rebellions eventually catch up with her. She realizes that the White man she pinned her future on could not appreciate her Bengali culture. Her White fiancé found Bengali culture to be “repressed” and “provincial”, and complained of the lack of alcohol and PDA (Lahiri, 232). Her fiancé’s disapproval of Bengali culture is enough for Moushumi to lose interest in the relationship. This was her cultural wakeup call. Moushumi’s reaction is proof that she cared more about her heritage than what her rebellious actions show. You can’t outrun your heritage forever.
Moushumi’s fatal flaw was not fully committing to her heritage even after learning her lesson from the White fiancé. Even after the universe had forgiven her and gifted her an amazing second chance with a Bengali man like Gogol, she still threw it all away by having an affair with a man she loved but could never have in her childhood cocoon phase. Her betrayal of Gogol is the final, irredeemable rebellion against her heritage.
Gogol vs Moushumi
Like Moushumi, Gogol committed many rebellions against his heritage. He shunned his birth name in favor of the simple “Nikhil” that is more accessible for Americans. He pursued an “improper” major like Architecture, and made his career revolve around that unreliable field. He consistently dated non-Bengali women.
Gogol had a wakeup call similar to Moushumi’s White fiancé’s disapproval of Bengali culture. When Gogol’s father died, Gogol’s long-term White girlfriend at the time, Maxine, could not tolerate being excluded from Gogol spending time with his mother and sister. Maxine was especially hurt by a trip that Gogol’s family took to Calcutta to spread their father’s ashes. Maxine even told Gogol that she felt jealous of her mother and sister for having priority in Gogol’s life over her (Lahiri, 201). In American culture, a woman’s parents are much more open to treat the boyfriend like family and allow him to live with them and their daughter. This is the way Maxine and her parents treated Gogol, so Maxine expected that Gogol’s family would do the same for her, especially in a time of grief. However, being a girlfriend is not enough to earn that level of embrace and warmth in Indian culture; the commitment of marriage must be made by both sides to earn the respect that Maxine expected. Just like with Moushumi and her White fiancé, the fundamental differences in heritage drove apart Gogol and Maxine.
However, Gogol did not commit the fatal flaw that Moushumi did. He learned his lesson. He committed to a life with with a Bengali woman that understands his culture. He stopped running from his heritage.
The tragic lesson Gogol learned is that his heritage may not have all the answers. Even after committing to a proper Indian marriage with an Indian woman, his marriage still fell apart for reasons outside of his control. The lesson I learned from this tragic life event in Gogol’s life is to be cautious of fully committing to someone just because they seem to conform to your culture. Each person has their own deviations and rebellions from the orthodoxy of their heritage.
At first, I didn’t really like Gogol’s character. He seemed so immature and selfish. I didn’t like the way he disobeyed his parents. I didn’t like the way he shunned his Bengali culture in his youth.
Then, I realized that I was just like Gogol at that age. I am only able to pass judgements on Gogol now because of the lessons learned from the same mistakes Gogol made. This realization helped me adopt a deep empathy for Gogol. I saw a lot of myself in him. He may have acted on his impulses more than most immigrant children, but we all have the same desires at that age. These “impulses” are all of Gogol’s rebellions that I have mentioned in previous sections.
The personal, uncanny relatability I have with The Namesake stems from the title itself. Just like Gogol, I also hated my birth name. My parents always called me by “pet name” (Adithya), but they registered a different formal name that was used in school (Prathamesh). Prathamesh became shortened to just “Prat” by my peers. My anger came from the reasoning behind why my parents even created Prathamesh in the first place: my parents strictly adhere to Indian superstitions and conformed to my family astrologer’s wishes that my name must start with a “P” and pay tribute to Lord Ganesha. Prathamesh was merely just a way for my parents to appease Hindu gods; my parents had no real intention of actually using that name. Although this simplified life for my parents, I was the one who had to live with the name Prathamesh in America.
Just like Gogol, I also legally changed my name before the start of college to correct the mistake my parents made, and just simply be Adithya. Just like Gogol, I understand what it’s like to have people from an older era of my life to call me by a different name than everyone else.
Me and Gogol’s namesake stories do have some differences. Gogol has significantly more meaning behind why Gogol was chosen (his father’s train crash incident, and the book written by the Russian author Gogol that saved him). It’s reasonable for Gogol to feel immense guilt and regret about changing his name after learning of the train incident story. I will never feel such guilt or regret.
I’m curious to read reviews of this book by non-Indian people. I suppose one group of non-Indians that may find interest in this book are students of literature that focus more keenly on the literary and storytelling tools that Lahiri employs. I suppose the best reviewer of this book would be someone who has Indian heritage and can speak the language of literary analysis. Hopefully I can re-review this book in the future with more emphasis on technical literary analysis.
5 out of 5 stars.
I have never before felt that a book was written solely for me. If you have experienced the 1st-generation immigrant life in any way (as a parent or as a child), this is a must-read.